Could Verification Save the HVAC Industry?

November 30, 2009
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Richard Dean

The HVAC industry has passed the trust tipping point. Once upon a time, HVAC contractors were revered as competent professionals working in a highly technical field. That day has passed. News programs don’t even bother with sting operations and hidden cameras to expose “crooked” or incompetent contractors.

As a result, many consumers assume that HVAC contractors are more intent on making a buck than they are on properly servicing or installing quality HVAC systems. Is it possible to change the perceptions consumers have about this industry?

My recommendation is for contractors to have internal quality control systems. This is one way contractors can set themselves apart from the competition.

We are only as good as our word, and that is based on our last job. The number of years we’ve been in business is a great base, but when a customer calls to point out a mistake your company made, you have to start all over again. And what does it mean when a customer points out a mistake; how professional does that look?

On the other hand, with an internal quality control system in place, you find the mistakes, not the homeowner. Internal quality control lets you address the mistakes, and set up procedures to avoid them in the future.

NECESSARY TESTING

We all face plenty of tests: medical, fitness, knowledge-based, etc. No matter what type of test you face, there is a risk that you will not pass. If you don’t like tests, you can rest assured that your technicians don’t like them either. How many beat your door down to volunteer for the NATE test?

Testing, however, is a way to determine where you stand. It measures results in a quantifiable way. Whether you’re in school, running in a race, or running a business, there is no way to know how well you’re doing without taking some measurements.

In school you took tests to measure how much you learned. In a race, you can see how many are ahead and how many are behind you, and how long it took you to go a specific distance. In business, we look at how we are performing financially.

How many callbacks did we lose money on? How many warranty calls did we have? How much advertising was needed to generate new customers because the referrals are not flowing like they once did?

Implementing an internal quality control effort, examining the quality of our work, improved my bottom line. Every job is a pass or fail; your customer grades it, and so should you.

QUALITY IMPLEMENATION

Beginning a quality control program is not easy. It takes a lot of your time, or the time of a trusted supervisor. Moreover, technicians and installers do not like to have someone looking over their finished work. They may have been improperly trained, or they may not completely understand all of the requirements that must be met.

When beginning an internal quality control program, it’s important to ensure that your technicians and installers understand what is expected of them. Checklists completed by the technician are a great way to start, but nothing beats direct supervision and immediate feedback. Invest your time in looking at their work. Provide positive reinforcement of good work, along with any critical comments on areas that need improvement.

Ensure that your technicians and installers have the tools and time they need to do the job to your standards. If for some reason you are not technically competent, have onsite inspections performed by someone who knows what they are looking at and will confirm the work is completed to your company’s standards.

Honest and open communication about your expectations is the first step. If you are sincere and consistent, you will see that your expectations will be met quickly, or you will have a very easy exit interview with the underperforming staff member.

You want to be sure that the big, important items are done well, and that your expectations are being consistently met before refining your demands for higher quality. Also, you need to know when to say when. Excellent performance should be rewarded, don’t get so picky that you’re impossible to work for. Building pride in workmanship and consistency is a task as individual as each technician and installer.

BASIS FOR A QUALITY CONTROL PROGRAM

I recently served on an Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) standard development committee with some of the smartest people in the industry. The committee was made up of other very successful contractors, manufacturers, distributors, and energy-efficiency experts. Our mission was to develop the protocols, or procedures, for evaluating an HVAC system.

As a reference, we used the American National Standards Institute-recognized national standard for Quality Installations. This document (a free PDF download at www.acca.org/quality) sets the minimum requirements that an HVAC system must meet, the tolerances for each requirement, approved procedures for measuring each requirement, and the documentation required. My committee’s job was to take that document and create the protocols for:

Sampling - Prescribes a method for determining how often you should examine your technicians or installers.

Evaluation - Identifies what should be checked, how to check it, and what measurements are needed.

Roles and responsibilities:
Administrator - That’s you; this is your program.

Verifier - This could be you or a trusted supervisor.

Contractor (or installer) - The person whose work is being verified.

My committee was charged with developing this program for utilities or other organizations that wanted the framework on which to build a verification program. This could be tailored by a contractor who wanted to begin a quality installation program within their company. Using this reference, you can develop an internal quality control program.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

The industry is facing serious challenges. Some businesses are dealing with rising callbacks, more warranty calls, and increased advertising budgets to replace the customers they are losing. You can change these trends with an effective internal quality control program.

We are still human; people will still make mistakes, and now and then a new part will be defective right out of the box. Those problems won’t disappear. However, I predict that with an effective, vigilant quality control program, your profits will increase, word-of-mouth advertising will increase, and you will have the reputation in the community as the professional HVAC contractor to call.

That is one way we can raise the professional image of the industry, one contractor at a time: consistently delivering quality installations and maintenance. Who knows, we may even climb back to the position where “60 Minutes” tries to catch your competition overcharging air conditioners again.

Publication date: 11/30/2009

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